By William Shakespeare. Adapted and directed by John Murphy. A Bard on the Beach production. At the Studio Stage on Thursday, July 11. Continues until September 13
This Measure for Measure is half Shakespeare, half musical cabaret, and while each half has its successes, they don’t add up to a satisfying whole.
Measure for Measure is an indictment of moral hypocrisy, so its themes would resonate in just about any time or place in human history. Director John Murphy moves the action of Shakespeare’s last comedy from Vienna to New Orleans circa 1900, in the red-light district of Storyville, a landscape dotted by brothels and speakeasies. The neighbourhood is an emblem of the city’s decline, so in order to wake up the “sleeping” laws of the city, the Duke puts the morally upright Angelo in charge while he purports to leave town. Angelo, who “scarce confesses that his blood flows”, cracks down hard, condemning Claudio to death for the crime of impregnating his own fiancée. Claudio’s sister, Isabella, comes to plead for her brother’s life, and the lustfully smitten Angelo offers to free Claudio if Isabella—a virgin poised to join a convent—will sleep with him.
Murphy revels in his setting; he contributes a number of original songs (cowritten by Anthony Pavlic) that run the gamut from torchy blues to ragtime and gospel. An early burlesque number by Mistress Overdone sets the tone: it’s big, it’s naughty, and it features a wicked horn section. Benjamin Elliott’s inventive arrangements capitalize on the considerable musical talents of the cast and the electrifying trumpet playing of Bonnie Northgraves.
But while the songs themselves are often hugely entertaining, they sometimes compete with Shakespeare’s play. Some have nothing to do with the plot—a showstopper in which a minor character sings a paean to his lover’s rear end comes to mind—while others heavy-handedly impose motivations on the Duke and Isabella that rob the play’s conclusion of emotional subtlety. And Murphy’s comic business is often coarse and overstated: there’s a giant dildo, for instance, and lots and lots and lots of crotch-grabbing.
The acting is energetic but mixed. As the foolish Lucio, Anton Lipovetsky tirelessly works the crowd, and Lois Anderson is her fearless, in-your-face self as Mistress Overdone. Andrew Wheeler’s Duke, Sereana Malani’s Isabella, and Bernard Cuffling’s nicely understated Escalus are (mostly) fixtures of decorum amid the chaos. David Mackay makes all of Angelo’s emotions crystal clear, but his southern accent blows in and out like a summer breeze. David Marr’s Pompey is one long note of incomprehensible bluster, squandering the character’s comic possibilities.
Drew Facey’s wisteria-draped balconies, Mara Gottler’s sumptuously seedy costumes (including some eye-popping Mardi gras outfits), and Adrian Muir’s sensuous lighting all enhance the atmosphere. Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg’s choreography makes beauty of decay, most memorably during a work song in which prisoners provide percussion by banging their exhausted bodies against the steps at the side of the stage.
Measure for Measure is a complex play, but much of that complexity has been sacrificed to the big, bold pleasures of this production’s setting. It’s entertaining, but it doesn’t quite deliver.